© 2009 David Bernstein
History oft moves with the caravans and trade fleets, and its journeys along the routes of the past and present are given a storied account in A Splendid Exchange. Beginning in ancient Sumer and moving forward to the present day, David Bernstein demonstrates how the lust for goods from afar has linked cities and states together, and driven them apart. The narrative corners nearly every corner of the globe, Antarctica excepting, and ripens into a tentative argument for free trade, though its author isn’t too insistent. Bernstein brings a lot to the table; he’s a personable author, sometimes wandering off on side-roads but for never too long, and usually delivering something valuable to the reader as a reward for gamely enduring: understanding of how air compressors work, for instance, or what is meant by the economic phrase, comparative advantage. He creates in A Splendid Exchange a marvelously varied history book, following the tale of trade through city-states to nation-empires, from the middle east to South America — but as varied as it is, no matter the diversity of goods being traded or fought over, the narrative flows seamlessly aside from a jump in the 20th century. Those goods range from the exotic to the mundane; table elements we now take for granted have had far more interesting past lives. Readers may well know that sugar, spice, and all things nice are everything little girls are made of – but they’re also the stuff of world empires and bitter grudges. The importance of trade routes affirms the importance of geography; many of the straits endlessly fought over throughout the book remain heavily in use today, underscoring the relevance of the various trading empires’ rise and fall. The same trading routes the Dutch and Portuguese shot their hearts out as cannons attempting to secure are the ones we employ to transport oil, no mere luxury. Our entire global economy is lubricated by trade, which is why Bernstein cautiously presents arguments for freeing it up, with caveats. A Splendid Exchange strikes me as popular history at its finest; varied but cohesive, fun to read but intelligently argued and obviously relevant to our contemporary experience.